My pastor quoted a commentary characterizing the unifying thread of today’s readings as the question, “What’s new?” In the gospel, there is a new commandment, in the second reading a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, and all things made new. The first reading doesn’t have the word new, but it concludes the account of something new: Paul’s first missionary journey, undertaken with Barnabas.
In the first reading —Acts 14:21-27 — we hear of the conclusion of Paul’s first missionary journey: a narrative which began at the first verse of chapter 13. We heard an excerpt last Sunday. From Derbe, Paul and Barnabas are more or less retracing their steps as they return to Antioch in Syria. As they go, they visit the churches they had founded.
There are two elements in those visits. First there is an exhortation to perseverance despite the difficulties which will inevitably be part of the disciples’ life. The same applies to us. We should not be surprised or discouraged in our faith when troubles come. Suffering is part of life. For Christians in many parts of the world, that suffering takes the form of persecution. Next, the apostles appoint elders (presbyteroi, in Greek, a word which has developed into the English word “priests”). The leadership in local churches is not self-constituting; the local churches are not completely independent. The present system of papal appointment of bishops has not existed through the entire history of the Church. Notably, bishops have at times been elected by the people or the clergy; but it has always been necessary for them to receive an ordination from other bishops in order to assume the office to which they had been elected.
In their report to the church of Antioch, the apostles tell how God “had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” We should be aware, however, that this was not the first time Gentiles had come to faith. Most notably, in chapter 10 we learn of Peter’s baptism of the centurion Cornelius and his household. But the extensive missionary journey was something new. It hadn’t been planned as a mission to the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas began by preaching in the Jewish synagogues, but opposition led them to turn to the Gentiles.
The responsorial psalm — Ps 145:8-13, with refrain based on verse 1 — seems to meditate on the spread of the faith to the Gentiles: the Lord’s compassion to all his works, the faithful blessing God, proclaiming God’s might to the human race. The final verse, speaking of God’s everlasting kingdom prepares us for the second reading.
The second reading — Revelation 21:1-5a — promises a new heaven and a new earth, with a new Jerusalem. What this implies is that at the end of the present age (the “end of the world”), what replaces the present world is not some immaterial existence in which we somehow participate in our resurrected bodies. There will be a material heaven and earth in which our resurrected bodies will live. What will be different will be the absence of death and sorrow. Our existence and the world will be glorified, like Jesus’ body after his resurrection.
In the gospel — John 13:31-33a, 34-35 — we are at the Last Supper. Jesus speaks of his glorification, which is accomplished by his willing acceptance of his passion and death to be followed by his resurrection, conquering sin and death, and his return to the Father. Then Jesus gives his new commandment: “Love one another.” Of course the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is already given in the Old Testament. What makes it new is the next expression: that we are to love as Jesus loves us. Jesus loves us to the point of giving his life for us. We need to try to realize that we belong to God and to one another. Rarely do people get the chance to directly give their lves for another, as did St. Maximilian Kolbe. But those who die in wartime service to their country or in roles of public safety give their lives even they may not have directly chosen to do so at that moment. For most of us, however, it amounts to letting go of selfishness.